Saturday, October 31, 2015

Festival of Museum Theatre: Come Alive! 2015

Festival of Museum Theatre: Come Alive 2015.  Artistic Director – Peter Wilkins.  Participating schools – Orana Steiner School, Daramalan College, St Francis Xavier College, Calwell High School Dance, Canberra College, Namadgi School, Telopea School, Canberra College Dance, Marist College, and Bateman’s Bay High School.

James O Fairfax Theatre, National Gallery of Australia, October 26 – November 1 2015.

by Frank McKone
October 31

In conjunction with the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL), Come Alive! has been presented each year since 2010, mainly at the National Museum of Australia, on occasion at the interactive science museum Questacon, and this year jointly by the National Gallery of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery.

The essence of Wilkins’ approach is simple in concept, highly effective in results.  I saw only two of the ten shows today, Light by Daramalan College and Lina by Orana Steiner School.  Having reviewed Come Alive! previously in 2012 and 2013 I can confidently say that the promise of developing a tradition and improvement in the two aspects of the program – understanding of the process of presenting theatre and appreciation of culture – has been very well fulfilled. 

Light took the work of James Turrell, represented in the NGA by Skyspace and Perceptual Cell and by his recent James Turrell: A Retrospective extended exhibition.  Lina was inspired by four Australian paintings from the 1940s Heide modernist group – The Red Hat by Jock Frater and Lina Bryans’ Nina Christiansen, The babe is wise, and Yellow portrait.

The basic principle of Wilkins’ method is that the student group in each school, with no more than minimal assistance from a teacher, will choose their subject from the museum / gallery display, undertake detailed research and create a theatre performance of about 20 minutes to express their new understanding.

Light became a kind of ‘abstract’ theatre, in which figures in white tops moved slowly together and apart, front lit by moving spotlights while live video showed them via changing differently manipulated images on a rear screen, as individuals spoke sections of poems referring to light, with backing group vocal sounds sometimes in harmony and sometimes quite discordant in effect.  The sound became like light, played as if it were light of different intensities and colour.  The piece concluded with a twist on the Dylan Thomas injunction – going ‘into the dying light’ as the stage lights faded before a silent bow (while we in the audience clapped gently).

Lina showed us, partly in mime or briefly frozen tableaus, and using spoken material from critical writing, personal letters and interviews, twelve of the artists and others associated with the Heide group: Lina Bryans and her relationships with William ‘Jock’ Frater, Ian Fairweather, Alex Jelinek, Nina and Clem Christiansen, novelist and critic Jean Campbell, Joy Hester, Albert Tucker, John Brack, Winifred Frater and Alan Sumner.  Despite the fractious nature of these diverse relationships, out of which came such an immense change in Australian painting and sculpture, the students found a peaceful ending in the interview with Lina, in her old age, married to Alex and content to look back with a degree of equanimity.

Each show, though completely different in stylistic approach, showed the same commitment, enthusiasm for research, originality in devising how to present the material, and remarkable maturity in dealing with ideas like Turrell’s ‘wordless thought’ in his work which has ‘no object, no image and no focus’; or with the contrasting and often conflicting philosophies of art, and the often explosive feelings (or especially in Ian Fairweather’s case, the depths of depression) generated between the artists of the Heide group. 

On my visit I was fortunate to hear some of the delegates from the International Museum Theatre Alliance (Asia/Pacific) conference currently being held in Canberra, whose questions of the two casts in a Q&A session brought out highly articulate expressions of delight at what they had achieved on stage.

To quote from my first encounter with museum theatre in 2001: "Banging a visitor over the head with a message will only serve to concuss their mind, not expand it." - Catherine Hughes, Boston Museum of Science, [then] Executive Director of the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL).  This was on the occasion of only the second IMTAL conference.  If you would like to follow up information on museum theatre, you could well begin here:

Further reading will take you to the psychology researcher from Harvard University, Howard Gardner (of Multiple Intelligences fame) who was probably the main stimulator of thinking about ‘museum education’ – that is taking students out of their isolated classrooms and stimulating their intelligences beyond the conventional numerical and verbal aspects, which effectively are the only sources of measurement in IQ tests. 

Peter Wilkins’ work in Come Alive! is a major contribution, serving not to ‘concuss their mind’, but ‘expand it’ for all the students who take part, especially because they become responsible, to themselves, for both observing and choosing from the cultural artefacts in the museums, and then for discovering and putting into practice the theatrical form which will convey their ‘excitement’, as one student said today, of finding out so much from ‘reading in the National Library’.  This is what we might call ‘wholistic’ education, the value of which cannot be over-estimated.

I now have a much better understanding of James Turrell, and learned a great deal more than I had known before about the Heide modern art movement.

And, finally, I must thank the teachers who will surely have worked overtime and inevitably had much more than ‘minimal’ input to their students’ success in this year’s Come Alive! : Jana Watson, Joe Woodward, Douglas Amarfio, Kym Degenhart, Ian Walker, Stephanie Ikin, Jessica Dixon, Sharon McCutcheon, Susan Johnson and Carla Weijer.  And the staff of NGA and NPG for their technical and administrative work – and their commitment to education.